It isn’t hard to imagine Krzysztof Kieslowski responding to an accusation that his films might be overly transcendent or unreal by employing one of the most common and, indeed, self-reflexive cinematic tropes: that of the gaze. The nice thing about the gaze is that there is a world of clichés to work with, particularly the Rear Window/Peeping Tom/etc. image of the voyeur. In the 20th century and beyond, there’s nothing quite like that urban ability to look out one’s window, with the aid of a telescope or some binoculars, and look at things one probably shouldn’t be looking at. That Jimmy Stewart was one of the first to do so in a really popular film somehow made it less taboo, more forgivable. The creepy protagonist of Peeping Tom re-associated the voyeur figure as the guilty party – in both senses of the word. In that film, he is not only the one who commits evil deeds but the one who is plagued and even driven by childhood guilt of the most Freudian variety. Same goes for Normal Bates in Psycho.
The clichéd image of the peeping tom makes its presence in Kieslowski’s Decalogue VI all the more interesting. Neither the director nor this series of films is anything like “cliché,” even in the stereotypical “art film” sense. Joseph Kickasola notes that Kieslowski’s trademark aesthetic instrument of abstraction liberates Decalogue VI from its own clichés and creates a film that “transcend[s] the merely sexual.” Tomek, the main character, has an aura about him that validates his own seemingly disingenuous claim to Magda that he actually “loves” her. While watching her from afar and playing rather cruel pranks on her, his motives seem anything but sinister or even playful. He admits to previously gratifying himself while watching her but now insists that his interest is founded in genuine love. When she forces her sexuality on him, his reluctance and reactions (the immediate and the subsequent) again confirm that Tomek “sees” Magda’s life as impoverished by virtue of its enslavement to the sensual. Her inability to recognize the reality of transcendent love reduces Tomek to nothing more than overactive hormones.
Tomek, on the other hand, becomes likewise enslaved to Magda’s existence, setting an alarm clock to notify him to report to the telescope in his dark room. They are at first connected through difference, such as Magda’s milk (which spills, signifying her embrace of the sensual) versus Tomek’s tapwater. Both are alone, with Magda’s solitude (at points spelled out in games of solitaire) becoming all the more apparent in the nature of her amorous visitors. Her extreme sensuality contrasts with Tomek’s disregard for the sensual and his need for the transcendent, the real. Following Tomek’s suicide attempt, the tables turn and Magda becomes the looker, the voyeur, and he becomes the unattainable object of the gaze. It is no accident that Tomek’s apartment is above Magda’s, just as Tomek experiences a death and resurrection experience that finally enables him to transcend his obsession. When Magda comes searching again for him at his workplace and this time finds him, he says simply, “I’m not peeping at you anymore.” The expression on Tomek’s face recalls that of the Theophanes character, whose appearance earlier in this episode coincided with Tomek’s jubilant running with a cart of milk bottles after Magda accepted his request for a date. (Here the presence of milk serves a double purpose: (1) identifying Tomek with Magda for the first time; and (2) pointing to the recovery of the maternal, previously absent in Tomek’s life, as signified by him drinking only water.) The expression is difficult to describe, implying an inner understanding or peace. Theophanes’ almost-smile (perhaps the only time we see this in The Decalogue?) is a knowing one, suggesting a necessary step in Tomek’s development. When Tomek bears the same look on his face later, it is the look of one who has felt the kind of poverty that emptied him of the desire to live. Having arisen on the other side of his desperation, a contentment now resides in him that has evaded Magda, or that Magda herself has evaded. There is the feeling at the end of Decalogue VI that things repeat themselves, that human beings take turns in feeling pain, suffering, desperation, and hopefully peace. Tomek’s resolution is on display for Magda, who now must wrestle with the futility of her empty, sensual existence. Perhaps one of Kieslowski’s more “upbeat” films, in that it features a “happy ending,” the conclusion is one of neither consummation nor tragedy. In this way the film, carrying within it themes of transcendence, itself transcends narrative expectations.
As Kickasola also observes, Kieslowski here delves beyond conventional gaze/voyeur tropes. Often this theme is employed to titillate the viewer through suspense and/or eroticism. (It doesn’t take much to see this theme’s application to the very idea of “cinema”; hence Laura Mulvey and spectator theory.) Hitchcock and others have used the gaze to appeal to Freudian notions of power and sexuality. Often films from these directors, while ingenious from a technical point of view, are best understood using fairly basic film theory to parse them. Kieslowski acknowledges the erotic thriller nature of cinematic voyeurism but takes it to its inevitable destination: emptiness. The voyeur unconsciously or consciously translates the object of the gaze into an image tailored to his or her tastes and needs, and the image becomes, as Bono has sung regarding pornography, “even better than the real thing.” This is Tomek’s epiphany, the one that takes place temporally prior to the film’s diegesis. By the time we observe him observing Magda, he is already aware of the poverty of the image and seeks involvement with the object. His pursuit of her, however, fails at the discovery that for anything like “love” to work, both parties must surpass the merely sensual realm.